It’s February, we’re coming down the homestretch of the college basketball season and all the usual contenders are in the mix to win it all. Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Duke – probably all good enough to win the six straight games needed to take home the title. There are a couple of non-traditional power conference schools who have emerged this season too. Yeah, I’m talking to you Baylor and Seton Hall.
But while I’m sure at this point you know plenty about all the traditional contenders, and probably even a bit about the non-traditional ones, this year there are an abnormal number of teams from outside the power conferences that are ranked high, with the potential to land good seeds and make a deep run in March themselves.
So with three non-traditional schools lurking, Gonzaga, San Diego State and Dayton, I figured now was as good a time as any to discuss them, and discuss if they are in fact national title contenders.
To listen to my breakdown of all the teams I believe are title contenders, you can click here.
But below are some thoughts on just how good Gonzaga, San Diego State and Dayton are, and whether they’re actually good enough to win it all.
It’s the second biggest annual mid-February argument on the entire planet, behind only when you and your spouse bicker because you forgot Valentine’s Day. That argument: “Is Gonzaga legit?”
Now look, I get that many people reading this are frustrated with the Zags current setup. They play in a weak conference, where at best, there are only one or maybe two other legitimate NCAA Tournament caliber teams and no other elite, national title contenders. It means that once January 1 hits, Gonzaga can essentially hit cruise control, pile up a bunch of wins and get a top seed without really having to break a sweat.
Again, I get the frustration. At the same time, just because their competition is bad, doesn’t mean that the Zags can’t be really good. Both can be true at the same time. And in the case of 2019-2020. Both are true.
For starters, they basically handled all of their out of conference competition with ease, with their only loss coming to Michigan when Michigan was healthy and playing good basketball. During that process they beat arguably the three best teams in the Pac-12 (Oregon, Arizona and Washington, when Washington had Quade Green). So don’t tell me they’re only winning because they play in a lousy conference. The Zags would be the unquestioned best team in the Pac-12. And I truly believe they could compete for the regular season crown in any other league though as well.
Furthermore there are two other things worth discussing when it comes to Gonzaga’s March capabilities.
One, they have actual NBA talent. This is no longer the plucky underdog of even a few years ago, but instead one with guys with legitimate pro potential. In no particular order, I’ve seen their top four scorers – Filip Petrusev, Corey Kispert, Killian Tillie and Joel Ayayi – all show up on mock draft boards. Point being, this isn’t an average team simply beating up on bad competition. This is a team that has front-line talent that can match anyone in the sport.
And finally, remember that for all the talk about Gonzaga’s soft conference schedule, few teams have had more tournament success than the Zags over the last half decade. Gonzaga has now advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond in each of the last five seasons, has gone to two Elite Eight’s, one Final Four and played for a national title.
With a tournament track record like that, eventually they are going to break through and win one. It could happen this year.
Can They Win the National Title: Yes
San Diego State Aztecs
It’s wild because anyone who has followed college basketball for a while knows that the Aztecs had a run in the early 2010’s where they were among the best mid-major programs in college basketball. Now after a few up and down years, they are 23-0 and closing in on a potential undefeated regular season.
And like Gonzaga, they didn’t get to 23-0 by accident or without playing good teams. Included in those wins are victories over No. XX Iowa, which is currently in second place in the Big Ten, and No. XX Creighton which just won at Villanova this weekend. They also have a road win at BYU, which looks like an NCAA Tournament team, and also beat Utah by 30 points – the same Utah team which toppled Kentucky in Las Vegas. So while yes, the Mountain West as a whole is down this year, that shouldn’t take away from what the Aztecs did out of conference.
Now, in terms of who they are, well they’re one of the few teams that really have no major holes in their game. They get great guard play from Malachi Flynn, a Washington State transfer who averages 16 points and five assists per game, have wing scoring from a kid named Matt Mitchell and are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, hitting over 38 percent as a team. They also start two beasts in the low post in 6’10 Yanni Wetzel and 6’11 Nathan Mensah. So, unlike many mid-major teams, they have the size to match up with power conference teams, and in the case of most, are actually bigger than them.
Trust me when I say, there is no team in college basketball that will simply overwhelm the Aztecs will size, athleticism or talent. When they walk in the gym, they look and play like a power conference team.
Furthermore, they do all the little things well. They get after you on defense, ranking in the Top 10 nationally in field goal percentage defense and points allowed. They also average just 10 turnovers per game, and shoot 76 percent from the free throw line as a team.
The only issue for San Diego State? Their head coach Brian Dutcher has only been on the job full-time for three years, after replacing legend Steve Fisher following the 2016-2017 season. While Dutcher was Fisher’s long-time assistant dating back to the “Fab Five” Michigan days, he’s in fact coached in just one NCAA Tournament game and never won one.
Could that be an issue? Absolutely. On the flip side, Fisher led Michigan to the 1989 national championship as an interim head coach. So, as Kevin Garnett would say “Anything is Posssssssssible!”
Will San Diego State win the title? Who knows? But can they? Absolutely.
Can They Win the National Title: Yes
Fun, historical footnote: Back in 2006 when LSU was in the hunt to play in the BCS national championship game (this was before the College Football Playoff) a reporter asked Les Miles why the two-loss Tigers deserved a shot at playing for the title. His response: “We never lost a game in regulation.”
Well, fast-forward a decade and a half and Dayton holds the same distinction: They still have yet to lose a game in regulation during the 2019-2020 college basketball season. Their only losses came to Kansas in the Maui Invitational final, and against Colorado. Both were on neutral courts. And both came in overtime.
In terms of what you need to know about the Flyers, well, to use a bad pun, they fly over the court. They’re the perfect, modern small-ball team, as they have an All-American down low in Obi Toppin and have basically surrounded him with four shooters at all times. As a team they shoot 37 percent from beyond the three-point line, and the three guards who surround Toppin (Jalen Crutcher, Ibi Watson and Trey Landers) all shoot 39.5 percent or better.
Of course, when you go small ball, that does make you susceptible to teams with size down low – and to me, that is my biggest concern with the Flyers. Dayton simply isn’t very good on the glass. They rank 84th nationally in rebound margin, and 188th nationally in total rebounds. Outside of Toppin, the Flyers leading rebounder is the 6’5 Landers, and nobody beside those two average more than five boards per game. What happens if Toppin gets in foul trouble? Or if they just go up against a big front line?
Now some of that can be mitigated by great shooting, and it’s not as though Dayton hasn’t faced good front lines already. Heck, they hung with – and at times, outplayed – Kansas for a full regulation game plus overtime.
But at some point, it does seem like their lack of size with catch up with them.
The Flyers can absolutely make a deep run. Maybe even to Atlanta for the Final Four. But I just can’t see them winning the six games needed to win it all.
Can They Win the National Title: No